John Cacioppo argues that, evolutionarily speaking, loneliness is an elegant solution to the millennia-long drive to see what's over the next Alp. "It isn't a death sentence or a life sentence—it's a signal," he says, "a signal that makes us human." Loneliness is the prompt that makes us come together, each of us sharing what we have, welcoming others to the fire or the cache of Junior Mints smuggled into the movie theater, creating a social fabric.

Lonely people who are cut off from any sense of community, who can see only what they don't have and want so desperately, might find it impossible to imagine their despair as a helpful genetic reminder. So they have to rely on possibly the only heartening characteristic of loneliness, acknowledged by each of the experts—that even the prospect of a connection can banish loneliness in an instant. If the socially isolated will listen to the prompt, if they're able to get up and get out, and if they can take hope in small daily interactions, they will make a connection and crawl out from under the howlingly empty feeling. The reprieve may not last forever—loneliness is pernicious—but it will last long enough for them to pull themselves together again and spend the next 15 hours of wakefulness tending to the prospect of their own happiness.
Take the quiz: Determine your loneliness quotient
How to help: 9 ways to to help a lonely friend


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